After nearly a year of being under a Level 1, or "severe," COVID-19 threat level, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county is getting closer to lowering that threat to Level 2, or "significant," as vaccinations become more widely administered. However, now that the statewide mask mandate has been lifted and businesses can operate at full capacity, Hidalgo said the potential for this to happen hinges greatly on personal responsibility.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Harris County's COVID-19 threat level was first set at "severe"—the highest threat level possible in the system—on June 26, where it has since remained unchanged. When the threat level system first debuted June 11, Harris County's COVID-19 threat level was set at "significant," where it remained for about two weeks.

"I know we're all tired," Hidalgo said during an April 7 press conference. "We're well over a year into this [pandemic] and we want this virus to go away. The good news is there's hope in these vaccines; there's a light at the end of the tunnel; but it's not the time to give up now."

The threat level system, which Hidalgo said was developed with the help of researchers and epidemiologists, is based on several factors including the county's average number of new cases reported daily, its COVID-19 positivity rate and hospitalizations.

According to Hidalgo, as of April 7 Harris County continues to have about 550 new COVID-19 cases reported daily with a positivity rate of 8.5% and COVID-19-positive patients taking up about 16% of the county's intensive care unit beds. In order to move to Level 2 on the threat level system, Hidalgo said the county would need to get down to an average of 400 new COVID-19 cases reported daily, a positivity rate of 5% and an ICU population of 15%.

"We're close, but things are flattening out, so we've got to keep doing our part," Hidalgo said.

While Hidalgo said she was "cautiously optimistic" to see the county's COVID-19 numbers trending downward, she said she is concerned about the effect the state's latest attempt to reopen would have on the county's progress.

"Every time there's been a reopening, within about a month and a half the numbers have begun climbing back up," she said. "We're about to hit a month and a half since the last reopening [so] I hope we don't see what we've seen two or three times over. Now maybe we've vaccinated enough people to where that won't happen, but we can't say for sure, so let's hope those numbers keep trending down."

According to Hidalgo, less than a quarter of Harris County's population has been fully vaccinated as of April 7 as vaccine supplies continue to remain a limiting factor for the county.

"Right now ... we're able to give more vaccines than we receive from the federal and state governments," she said. "But if you look around the corner, there is a concern that at some point, we may have more vaccines than people who are willing to take them, so that's my fear. We could be through with this into the summer if we get vaccinated and spread the word. If we don't, it's a race against time [and] against these variants."

Hidalgo urged Harris County residents—both vaccinated and unvaccinated—to continue to take personal responsibilities such as choosing to wear face coverings while in public and continuing to social distance for the foreseeable future to avoid another COVID-19 spike.

"We've lost over 3,000 people in Harris County to the virus; we have had hundreds of thousands of cases—that's not normal; that's not okay," she said. "We can't be numb to the losses and the deaths, and we still are powerful in preventing this. It's all in our hands, how quickly we can hit herd immunity. I want it to be over as much as everybody does [but] we're just not there yet, and the concern is if we let our guard down right now, then we're going to see unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations that we could avoid because we're on our way out of this."